Sound travels:
neil rolnick in china

August 18, 2008

From late May until late June 2008 I was in China preparing for and performing concerts of my music. While I experienced all the normal frustrations of an American (a New Yorker, no less), I also came away with some interesting insights and questions about the musical and artistic scene I encountered there.

The major projects which bookended my stay were performances of a new piece, The Economic Engine, for 4 traditional Chinese instruments, western string quartet, digital processing and video projection. The piece was commissioned by the China Electronic Music Center at the Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) in Beijing.

The first performance was the premiere at the Beijing Modern Music Festival at the CCOM on May 29. The final performance was at a concert of my music on June 21, including The Economic Engine, as well as several solo laptop pieces and an improvisation with Bruce Gremo and my video collaborator Cindy Ng Sio Ieng at Beijing's 798 Art Area, as part of the 2008 Beijing Digital Entertainment Jam, sponsored by the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. Before the first performance and between the performances I was mostly involved in preparing the video with Cindy, and in rehearsals and revisions of the works for the concerts. I also spent a few days in Shanghai where I performed at the 3rd anniversary concert of the NoiShanghai series and gave a lecture and workshop at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Economic Engine at CCOM

Just before heading to Beijing I decided that staying for a month in the Chinese business hotel where the CCOM could make reservations for me was probably not going to be very pleasant, so I went on-line and found an apartment to rent for the month. This put me in a more normal living situation in a compound of high-rise apartment buildings with mostly Chinese residents. These kinds of buildings have come to dominate Beijing, as well as the other Chinese cities I've seen. Although they look cold and soul-less form the outside, they're actually very comfortable on the inside. This one had eight 30-story apartment towers, with a large park between the buildings, and was filled with the kind of activity you expect in any Chinese urban park: older people out early doing Tai Chi, grandparents with babies in split pants, people out walking their dogs and caged birds, older kids playing after school, and families hanging out after dinner.

Apartment Complex in Beijing

One result of my living situation was that I was on my own much more than the normal tourist, and wasn't as tied to my hosts at the CCOM as I had been on earlier trips.

While working with different groups of musicians and artists in Beijing and Shanghai, I often felt that I was dealing with people from completely different worlds, as I'll explain. But throughout, I was continually impressed by just how lively and varied the musical and artistic life is in Beijing, and in China in general.

There were really three different groups of people I spent time with: those connected with the highly competitive and well respected music conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai, musicians from the underground electronic music scenes in both cities, and mostly unaffiliated visual artists whom I met through my video collaborator Cindy.

The conservatories seemed to embody the high pressure competitive and hierarchical educational organizations I might have anticipated. They're places which select a handfull of the most gifted students from a population of 1.3 billion (give or take a few hundred million). But some interesting problems showed up when I looked at student work.

In Shanghai I spent a couple of hours with students who brought in electronic work for me to critique. The same conversation played out over and over again, with slight variations: I'd ask what the work was about, why they wrote it. The response would generally be that it was a homework assignment. At one point, there was a group project from five of the Masters level students. They said the piece was to illustrate the contrast between the virtual world and the real world. When I asked about how the piece was supposed to lead us to perceive this contrast, they produced an essay describing the structure of the piece. I insisted that I wanted to be able to understand the piece with my ears, not through a verbal description of how the piece is supposed to work. I pressed them to explain how the idea for the piece and for this contrast between real and virtual sounds developed out of their collaboration. How did the idea arise? How did the specific material for the piece develop out of their five-way collaboration?

They hesitated a bit, then said that the idea was the teacher's idea. Their roles had been to each be responsible for a particular aspect of the realization: one was responsible for Max/MSP programming, one was responsible for 5.1 programming, one was responsible for recording source material, etc. Like the other pieces I listened to that day, this one was very skillfully realized and recorded. As you'd expect, it sounded like professional quality work. But for me there was something missing. I waited in vain for someone to tell me they did something because they loved the way it sounded, or because they were driven to manifest in sound some theoretical idea, or because there was just no other way to write the piece. In short, I was looking for something which arose out of the composer's passion for what he or she was doing. Instead, I found very talented and skilled students who were spending most of their time focused on how to get past the huge battery of competitive tests which make up their education, and learning the skills required in their classes, but not driven to make the music they believe in.

I found a similar situation a year earlier at the CCOM in Beijing. There, a wonderful young piano student named Feng Chi had stepped in to perform my very challenging piano and computer piece Digits after the professional pianist who had been hired for the performance dropped the piece because it was too difficult. Feng Chi did a great job of learning the piece in two weeks and playing it very convincingly in the concert. In the middle of the piece there's a section which is a fairly traditional fugue. During one of our rehearsals, though, I pointed out that she wasn't playing the fugue like she really heard the individual voices and their interactions. After a considerable back and forth in English and Mandarin, when I finally sang each of the entrances of the fugue subject as they entered, she smacked herself on the forehead and shouted O! Fuga!! Feng Chi has great native musicality and pianistic skill, but it says something to me about the quality of the conservatory's training that a player can learn all the notes of a fugue so that she can actually play it, and still not notice that it is a fugue!

The work I heard by students from the CCOM in Beijing were problematic for me in a different way. The director of the electro-acoustic program there is Zhang Xiaofu, a well established and talented composer who was trained in France in the 1980s, and whose work strongly reflects that heritage. My difficulty with student work there was that virtually all the pieces I heard seemed to sit stylistically in very close proximity to Zhang's own work. As in Shanghai, the technical skills and musicality in evidence in the realization of the music were impressive, but I couldn't help wondering where new voices were going to come from. If the students at the most prestigious conservatory in the country can get away with writing music which is stylistically situated with the work of their teacher and their teacher's teachers, how can a uniquely Chinese voice emerge which will be relevant to the 21st century? In both conservatories, it seemed that the emphasis on gaining skills overpowered the thing which I find most important in teaching any kind of creative work, which is the need for students to find and develop their own artistic or musical identities.

As part of my talk at the Conservatory in Shanghai, I spoke about my upcoming performance at NoiShanghai. No one at the Conservatory had heard of the group, which holds its concerts in a tiny bar in the northeast corner of the city called Live Bar. Maybe there were 25-30 people in the bar for the performance on a Sunday afternoon, including the performers in the 9 acts scheduled. And there was not a lot of classical training in evidence. What there was, besides a generally high-decibel level, was a deep level of engagement and commitment by many of the performers. The local headliner was a group called Torturing Nurse, consisting of two men operating feedback-driven stomp boxes and a female singer who screamed non-stop for about 20 minutes. Sometimes the singer was joined by Junky, one of the stomp box players, while Xu Cheng, the other stomp-box player, filled the room with sounds which were driving but somehow devoid of beat or regularity. And very very loud.

Torturing Nurse

The concert at Live Bar included other acts, including some beautiful minimal laptop music by Wang Changcun, delicate acoustical explorations of a young English student named Dominik Dvorak, and a performance art piece with bull horns and poetry by a group calling itself Nine Inch sNails. They all did their performances with passion, and sometimes humor. And when they spoke of their work it was clear that this was something they felt driven to do, not something they were obligated to do.

There's a similar scene in Beijing. It's described somewhat in a recent New Yorker article by critic Alex Ross. There seem to be two bars with regular offerings of experimental music, mixing noise and electronica and industrial sounds. D22 is run by an American ex-pat named Michael Pettis, who teaches finance at Peking University, and who used to run an experimental music club in the East Village in NYC. The other venue is 2 Kolegas, which hosts a series run by Yan Jun. Yan Jun seems to be the most active impresario of experimental sound in Beijing, and when the recent Midi Music Festival was cancelled he picked up parts of it at 2 Kolegas.

I played at one of Yan Jun's Waterland Kwanyin concerts at 2 Kolegas about a year ago, and the whole scene was fascinating to me. After working for several weeks at the CCOM on that trip, where I had to go through major administrative mazes to even get the rooms and music stands I needed for rehearsals, a friend suggested I give Yan Jun a call. I asked about setting up a concert when I returned, and he suggested instead that I come down to 2 Kolegas as play a set in a show the following week. The bar was packed with young people who listened to me and 2 other laptop performance acts with rapt attention and high energy.

Another contrast in the conservatory culture and the underground music culture in China was highlighted in that concert at 2 Kolegas. In Shanghai last year I'd spent some time with an excellent and well known (in China) composer named Jia Daqun. Jia is very busy with commissions and performances, and also serves as dean of the graduate program in composition at the Shanghai Conservatory. When we met I gave him some CD's of my music. He explained that he'd need to make up some CD-Rs of his pieces, since he didn't have any commercially released CDs. He said that despite his position and his activity as a composer, the problem of getting both approval and funding from the government had made it impossible for him to release even one CD of his music.

In contrast, when I played at 2 Kolegas and at the NoiShanghai concert, there was a table full of CDs produced by the performers. It looked just like the table of CDs you'd see in the lobby of any new music concert in the US. Somehow these young musicians, most of them under 30 years old, had managed to confront the difficulty of producing a CD by doing it themselves, while the more established composers were thwarted by the need to work within a very restrictive system.

I gather from my friend Bruce Gremo, a composer and flutist/computer performer who now lives in Beijing, that there are other venues springing up as well around Beijing, and a growing community of players and musicians engaged in experimental music outside of the academy.

I got a glimpse of yet another side of the artistic life of the new China in a trip Cindy set up for me to spend a day visiting the artist village Song Zhuang with her friend Xiao Shan.

The most famous neighborhood for art galleries and studios in Beijing is the 798 Art Area in Dashanzi, in the northeast corner of the city. It's an old neighborhood of munitions factories which artists moved into for the low rent and huge raw spaces. The government saw the commercial potential in this, and now, like SoHo in New York, Dashanzi is a tourist magnet with high priced galleries and studio spaces which very few artists can afford.

Song Zhuang is one of a number of villages in and around Beijing which are hoping to become the next 798. About 40 minutes by taxi from my central Beijing apartment (or 3 hrs by municipal bus), Song Zhuang is an old farming village surrounded by farms growing corn and watermelons. According to Xiao Shan, the village houses about 3000 artists and 3000 farmers. The farmers are by far better off financially, since they receive government salaries.

I visited the house of Xiao Shan and her painter husband Zhao Jun Hai, the house of performance artist Wang Chuyu, who performed in one segment of the video for The Economic Engine, a house just purchased by Pei Feng, the video editor who work with Cindy on our piece, and several others. While Pei Feng's and Chuyu's houses are 100 year old farm houses, and Xiao Shan's was a newer construction, they were all very similar. Relatively small central houses with a work/studio area and a sleeping area, and out-buildings for the kitchen and bathroom, all enclosed in a walled courtyard which also can provide space for a small garden and fruit trees.

It was not clear to me exactly how the artists in Song Zhuang earn a living. They obviously sell some of their paintings, though Xiao Shan told me that her husband was painting for 10 years without selling anything before his work began to be shown at a gallery in Dashanzi/798 and he began selling paintings. But what was clear to me was that this is a community of young artists who are devoted to their work. The village is sprouting new galleries and museums in its effort to become the new 798, and it is developing studios and housing for the influx of artists. But the artist themselves are clearly doing work they believe in, and which they are passionate about.

Wang Chuyu in The Economic Engine

Wang Chuyu, the performance artist, is also doing work which would be cutting edge in the west, much less in China. His work explores issues of materialism and endurance. In fact, the segment he did for The Economic Engine was censored in the performance at the CCOM. The piece presents a perfectly Sisyphian depiction of economic growth. Chuyu, stark naked, tapes a 100RMB note to a wall at about his eye level. He then tries to lift his right foot over his left shoulder onto the bill on the wall. He occasionally succeeds at the task, but invariably he topples over and has to recommence his contortions. It's funny and sad and rings very true in its representation of how we're always reaching for wealth, and how futile it always is. However, because we see Chuyu's penis momentarily when he falls over, the representative of the CCOM who was supervising the concert asked me not to show it. He was afraid that breaking the government's ban on depictions of public nudity or lascivious behavior would get him in serious trouble. And while I couldn't imagine that anyone could see anything lascivious in Chuyu's work, I didn't feel that I could put the concerned CCOM professor in jeopardy by insisting that the video be shown in that performance.

It was clear in my one day visit that Chuyu, Pei Feng and the other artists I met were part of a community which was deeply engaged in issues of art, performance and aesthetic pursuits. Chuyu invited me to come back out the following day to see a performance in his courtyard space. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it, because I needed to prepare for my own final Chinese performance a few days later.

When I prepared for the second performance of The Economic Engine, Cindy and I specifically told the producer about the segment with nudity, and this helped push the decision to make it an indoor performance, rather than the originally planned outdoor concert.

This performance provided a glimpse into yet another Chinese art world. It was sponsored by another school, the Beijing Fashion Institute of Technology, but not a music conservatory. The artistic director of the festival, Ding Zhao Chen, is a professor in the school's design department. The first night of the festival included a fashion show of student designed clothes, and was supposed to include a brief performance by Cindy and me, but a huge rain storm washed out our part of the program.

798 Venue

The Festival, including my concert, took place in 798, which gave it a caché of art world credibility which was lacking in the performance at CCOM. And it did feel a bit like loft performances in Soho or Tribeca in the 70s or 80s, but more so. The performance was in what I think was a derelict dormitory for an old factory, up four floors of stairs with broken and chipped tiles on the stairs, an inch of dust and grit on every surface, and clear views into (thankfully) long disused communal bathrooms at each landing. The room itself was a concrete box with a 3-second reverb time. There was a hip-hop DJ in the plaza four stories below while we tried to rehearse all afternoon in 95º heat. The sound system arrived four hours late and the electricity arrived two hours after that via a 200 meter extension cord brought up from where the DJ had been plugged in four floors down. But with all that, when we finally got to show time the hall was packed with about 200 mostly young people who received my musical offerings with great enthusiasm. I can't imagine that many of them really knew what kind of music they were coming in to hear, but they certainly convinced me by their responses that they were eager to hear new things.

There's something very exciting about the art and music scenes I saw on this trip to China, particularly among the young people who are working outside the standard academic institutions. China presents an enigmatic combination of the repressive totalitarian state which encourages some forms of entrepreneurship. In my lecture at the Shanghai Conservatory I encouraged the students and faculty in the audience to reach out to get to know the musicians who participate in the NoiShanghai events. In discussions afterwards, some of the faculty seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the idea that a professor (i.e., me) could be engaged with this kind of alternative music scene. And in Beijing I brought the 8 student performers from the CCOM with me to 798, and had the impression that they didn't often participate in art world events.

798 Performance

It's hard for me to imagine that there won't eventually be some kind of crossover between the different musical worlds I observed on this trip. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but it is a reflection of what I love about the music life in New York. Despite the characterizations of uptown and downtown musical sensibilities, in reality musicians here seem to mix things up without much regard to these kinds of divisions. Musicians who are excited by music want to play with other people who are excited about what they do, and if everyone wants to learn and expand their musical experience, then artificial divisions become irrevlevant.

The passion, commitment and dedication of the underground music scene in China are truly exciting. Likewise, the technical skills of the Conservatory students and their willingness to do the hard work to develop those chops is also admirable. I'd love to see a situation where those dedicated and passionate musicians from the underground could be invited into an academic institution where they could gain musical and technical skills to give greater breadth to their expression, without stifling their musical passions with bureaucracy and endless exams. That may not be possible in today's China, but one of the features of today's China is that nothing seems to be really impossible.